Jury awards more than $37M to family of Korryn Gaines in civil case against Baltimore County

A Baltimore County jury on Friday awarded more than $37 million in damages in the civil lawsuit brought by the family of Korryn Gaines, the 23-year-old Randallstown woman who was shot and killed by county police after a six-hour standoff in 2016.

The jury of six women said the first shot fired by Cpl. Royce Ruby at Gaines, killing her and injuring her then-5-year-old son, Kodi, was not reasonable and therefore violated their civil rights under state and federal statutes.

The jury awarded more than $32 million to Kodi in damages, and $4.5 million for his sister, Karsyn.

Gaines’ father and mother were awarded $300,000 and $307,000, respectively, and the Gaines estate was awarded another $300,000. No punitive damages were awarded.

Maryland has a cap on local governments’ liability in certain cases, however, and some legal experts speculated Gaines’ relatives might not see the full amount of the jury award.

The jury took less than three hours to reach its verdict against Ruby and the Baltimore County government.

There were gasps in the courtroom when the jury forewoman read the decision, and Gaines family members were in tears following the announcement.

The case garnered national attention, with some activists citing it as an example of excessive police force against people of color.

Kenneth Ravenell, the attorney for Kodi’s father, Corey Cunningham, said they were “blessed” that the jury “quickly, swiftly returned a justified verdict on behalf of a child who was victimized by Officer Royce Ruby.”

“This is a great day. This is a great statement on behalf of many who have been victimized by police officers — too many — in our community,” Ravenell said.

Cunningham said the financial award will help Kodi, now 6, “get the help that he needs.”

“I’m very happy that the jury came back and saw and realized what was going on in that courtroom wasn’t right, and what happened on Aug. 1 wasn’t right,” he said.

Gaines’ mother, Rhanda Dormeus, spoke to reporters through tears outside the courthouse.

“This win is for all of my sisters in the movement who have lost their children to police violence,” she said. “Some of them have never received justice, either criminally or civil. I just want to tell them that this win is for them.”

Family attorney J. Wyndal Gordon donned a Colin Kaepernick jersey before speaking to reporters. He said he was “filled with pride” that the jury made a decision to make the family whole.

“Royce Ruby was nobody’s hero. He wasn’t a hero to his comrades or fellow officers. He wasn’t a hero to the community. He was a coward,” Gordon said.

Baltimore County government attorney Mike Field issued a statement saying the county is “disappointed” with the verdict and “is reviewing all of its options, including an appeal."

"A mother died, a child was unintentionally injured, and police officers were placed in mortal danger. By any account, this was a tragic situation,” Field said in the statement.

Through a spokesman, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz declined to comment. Kamenetz, a Democrat, is running for governor.

A representative of Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 said the union had no comment on the verdict. Police chief Terry Sheridan, who was not with the department at the time Gaines was killed, also declined to comment through a spokesman.

Police department spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson did not comment directly on the verdict, but said: “We would reiterate that the state’s attorney’s office reviewed the situation and deemed the shooting justified.”

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said the case should prompt review of police department policies. Jones’ district includes Randallstown.

“I just think we should really review our policies, not just Baltimore County police, but all police… in terms of when it’s necessary to shoot and is there an alternative to shooting,” Jones said.

He also expressed concern over the cost of the case to taxpayers at a time when county leaders are “arguing over whether we can afford a school or can’t afford a school.”

While Gaines’ family and attorneys expressed relief the jury agreed with them and found the shooting was wrong, some said they were frustrated Ruby is still on the police force. Ruby was promoted last year from the rank of officer to corporal.

“He should be going to jail for what he did,” said Gaines’ fiance, Kareem Courtney, outside the courthouse as he held daughter Karsyn on his hip.

He said taxpayers will likely pay the damage awards related to Ruby’s actions — not Ruby himself.

“He’s not going to pay. He’s going to go home to his family. My family has been destroyed. My daughter’s not going to know her mother,” Courtney said.

Courtney had been in the apartment with Gaines on Aug. 1, 2016. He left with Karsyn after police arrived, while Gaines stayed inside with Kodi.

The testimony and legal arguments in the trial centered on the events that led to Ruby’s shots at Korryn that day. The defense team representing the county and Ruby tried to show the officer reasonably feared he or others could have been injured or killed by Gaines.

Gaines family lawyers focused on inconsistencies in officers’ statements, including the positioning of various officers and whether they had adequate cover when standing outside the apartment. The lawyers suggested the officers changed their stories to make it look like they were in more danger than they really were.

The sequence of events began at about 9 a.m. when two officers went to the apartment to serve arrest warrants on Gaines for not appearing in court on a traffic case and on Courtney for an alleged assault. After no one opened the door, the first officers unlocked it with a key from the apartment complex and later kicked it in to break the security chain.

The first officer who went into the apartment, Officer Allen Griffin III, testified he saw Gaines holding a shotgun and immediately knew the situation was unsafe.

“The barrel was pointed right dead at my chest and my face,” Griffin told jurors. He testified he yelled to his partner: “Gun! Gun! Gun!” and backed out of the apartment. Griffin and other officers took positions outside the door. Griffin’s partner, Cpl. John Dowell, testified that Gaines said she thought the warrant was fraudulent and ordered officers not to come inside.

Gaines had a distrust of police and her family’s lawyers acknowledged she had mental illness that caused her to possibly be detached from reality.

Precinct officers were replaced by Ruby and other officers from the county’s tactical unit. Ruby was stationed just outside the door, which was cracked open a few inches, for most of the day. Ruby testified that in the hours before Gaines’ death, she was seated in the hallway of her apartment, a shotgun on her lap and a cellphone to her ear.

Gaines had broadcast some of the standoff on social media until police succeeded in having her accounts shut down. She used her phone to videotape officers, and sometimes gave the phone to Kodi so he could film.

Eventually, Kodi went into the kitchen and Gaines followed. As Ruby watched, he said he saw her braids and the barrel of her shotgun raise. It was then that he fired from the building’s hallway and through drywall toward where he thought Gaines was, then he entered the apartment and shot Gaines three more times.

“There was no choice,” Ruby testified. “Officers were going to die if I didn’t take that shot.”

Two of the bullets also struck Kodi, hitting his cheek and arm. Kodi’s father, Corey Cunningham, testified that Kodi is “a shell of himself” who is now skittish, untrusting and has trouble sleeping and behaving in school. He’s had surgeries and sees a counselor.

James S. Ruckle Jr., an assistant county attorney representing Ruby and the county, said in his closing statement hours before the verdict that police officers are called upon to make split-second decisions. He said Ruby was in danger if Gaines fired her shotgun because his tactical gear — including a protective vest and helmet — left his legs, arms and face exposed.

“The body armor is not the total protection the plaintiffs want you to believe,” Ruckle told the jury.

Ruckle told jurors that police officers are allowed to use deadly force if they believe there is an imminent threat of death or bodily injury to themselves or other officers.

Gaines family attorneys told jurors that Gaines posed no immediate threat to police.

Gordon said Ruby didn’t make a split-second decision to shoot Gaines. “He waited for the opportune time to make that decision,” he said.

In a dramatic moment, Landon White, another family attorney, pointed to rows of police officers seated in the gallery behind Ruby in the courtroom. He said that for hours and hours during the standoff, multiple officers chose not to fire at Gaines.

“Look at all those officers,” White said. “Only one took a shot.”

The financial awards granted by the jury are considered compensatory damages to those affected by Ruby’s decision to fire. Some of the damages are intended to cover direct economic loss, including $23,000 in past medical bills for Kodi and $7,000 in funeral expenses for Korryn Gaines. The rest of the awards were for non-economic damages.

The jury declined to award punitive damages, which are intended to punish a defendant or deter others from taking similar actions.

Throughout the trial, Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman noted concern for the jury, especially as the trial lasted a week longer than anticipated. Three jurors dropped out of the case, including one who injured her ankle slipping on ice one morning. All three were replaced by alternates, leaving no alternates.

In the wake of Gaines’ death and other incidents that brought scrutiny on the Baltimore County Police Department, Kamenetz and then-chief Jim Johnson announced a number of policy changes, including the acceleration of a program to outfit officers with body cameras. Ruby was not wearing a body camera during the incident.

In 2017, the department also began specialized training for officers in dealing with “critical incidents” involving people with mental illness or cognitive disabilities, said Vinson, the police spokesman.

Nearly 100 officers were trained last year and the training is continuing this year, including with all recruits, Vinson said.

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